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When old age becomes a crime

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CHIBWANA—There is inadequate awareness

Bishop Martin Mtumbuka of the Diocese of Karonga is worried that the lakeshore district is fast becoming a hotspot of mob justice targeting elderly people accused of practising witchcraft.

Hardly a month passes without the district registering a case of murder of the elderly.

“But the most saddening thing is that authorities are paying a blind eye to mob justice. The wheels of justice have been slow to catch up with the perpetrators,” Mtumbuka laments.

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In 2020 alone, 15 elderly people were killed in mob justice on allegations of practising witchcraft. The majority of the victims were the elderly.

Malawi Network of Older Persons (Manepo) Executive Director Andrew Kavala described the year 2020 as a “terrible year when it comes to safeguarding lives of the elderly”.

“We are looking at over 15 elderly men and women being killed in the year. I mean losing a life is something the country should to be worried about,” Kavala says.

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The National Policy for Older Persons defines an older person as one who is above 60 years old.

In a normal situation, they should be depending on the economic and social support of the government, their children and the community.

However, a study on living arrangements and health at older ages in rural Malawi found that most of them live in abject poverty, have poor health and nutritional statuses, have no home or shelter and are often abused.

Community members are similarly failing to provide for the needs of the elderly. The plight of the elderly has been made worse with the direct and indirect effects of poverty and HIV and Aids, according to a recent report.

The report, titled ‘Social Protection and Ageing in Malawi’ by Zifa Kazeze, formerly of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, stresses that older persons are important and have a contribution to make in socio-economic development.

“It is important, therefore, that the implications of ageing issues in Malawi are understood, especially challenges older persons face, and to respond to the challenges and opportunities of ageing,” the report recommended.

Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) National Coordinator Boniface Chibwana blames the sustained destitution of the elderly on the absence of a comprehensive social protection programme.

Chibwana says this leaves most of rural-based elderly people with no reliable form of social protection.

The government has attempted to introduce social net programmes and interventions aimed at alleviating the burden they carry.

Among others, the government embarked on a social cash transfer scheme, aimed at the poorest 10 percent of households.

The scheme was piloted in July 2006 in Mchinji District and is providing a monthly cash transfer to thousands of households, which are headed by elderly people with young dependents.

But Chibwana argues there is a need for a non-contributory pension as a significant component of old age income security.

In order to reduce underlying socio-economic inequalities that are worsened by poor and defective local development policy, CCJP, with funds from Norwegian Church Aid, is working to enhance social accountability in local governance to reduce inequalities for an inclusive Malawi.

The project is being implemented in Karonga, covering areas within the jurisdictions of traditional authorities (T/As) Mwakaboko and Wasambo.

“Our aim is to increase the voices of citizens and enhance actions of the communities in local development processes through social accountability mechanisms to reduce underlying socio-economic inequalities that are worsened by poor and defective local development policy,” Chibwana says.

He adds that, under the theme of ‘fighting inequality’, the project seeks to ensure that duty-bearers are influenced to increase finance and spending to reduce poverty and inequality and to empower communities so that they are mobilised for just resource governance.

Chibwana emphasises the need for Malawi to have a policy that is progressive and normative to potentially respond and meet the needs and problems of older persons.

“Some of underlying factors hampering the effective implementation of the policy is that there is inadequate awareness of the policy among key local council officials and the general public at large; low funding to local development structures such as local councils; poor coordination and collaboration among local level actors in elderly programming; lack of harmonisation of social protection programmes to adequately address older persons’ needs,” he says.

CCJP has also found that Malawi lacks specific legislation to address elderly rights issues as is the case with other vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, women and children.

The country enacted the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act (2010); the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (2006); the Gender Equality Act (2013) and the Disability Act (2012).

Chibwana argues that, in the same vein, an elderly specific law is needed to address issues of care, protection and justice, among others.

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